Just like with Oscar ballots I'm weighting these with #1 as my top choice and so on down the list.
1. Carey Mulligan - Shame
For me Carey Mulligan is becoming to acting what PT Anderson is to directing or Charlie Kaufman is to writing - an artist I trust implicitly and will follow anywhere, confident in their abilities.
Take her performance in Steve McQueen's Shame. I feel I know her character, Sissy, so well despite practically knowing very little about her. I know she's as flighty and irreverent as her brother is dour, I know she's a lounge singer who needs to crash at his place, and I can tell there is something dark from their past that hangs in the air between them, unspoken. After that it's never spelt out what is going on in her mind and Mulligan isn't afraid to embrace her character's mystery. The more she suggests about Sissy's hungers and weaknesses the more we want to know about her and her relationship with Fassbender's Brandon. Yet in her heart-stopping bluesy rendition of New York, New York - one of the indelible movie moments of the year - we get the impression that Mulligan has psychically given us all we need to know if we look hard enough.
Already fulfilling the immense promise of 2009's An Education, at 26 years old Mulligan is delivering performances that would make Streep proud. She will surely be a force in the acting world for decades to come.
2. Sareh Bayat - A Separation
Every performance in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation is right on the money, but the best of the bunch may just be Sareh Bayat's work as the maid at the center of the film's mystery. Of all the character's only she seems to know for sure what really happened, and we search her face for clues. She seems so certain, so confident in the fact that she was wronged, yet at times we may spot cracks in her indignant appearance. A gleam of panic concealed in the eyes. And when Farhadi's script reaches its devastating final scenes, it is Bayat's performance which carries the full impact of the truth. Due to her character's modesty and eagerness to stay out of trouble one could easily miss the stunning strength of Bayat's work here. It's a great perform hidden in plain sight.
3. Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
People like to bitch and moan about how Oscar turns up it nose at comedic achievements, yet when a genuine blast of comic brilliance hits theaters like Melissa McCarthy's balls-to-the-wall performance in Bridesmaids, it seems like a lot of those same people start looking the other way, "Uhh, she's crapping in the sink. That's not really our thing, is it?"
Ignore the naysayers. McCarthy's is one of the few 2011 performances that I am completely confident will be remembered for years to come. She takes what would normally be the comic relief punchline and shoots her full of rambunctious energy, equal parts bawdiness and sweetness. McCarthy earns bigs laughs off her characterization, never going for the cheap shot, and, aided by a sharp script, she raises the film up a level in the moving, unexpected scene where she tries to shake Kristen Wiig out of her depression. Supporting awards are made for performances like this.
4. Jeannie Berlin - Margaret
Margaret follows such a wandering path through its story that we, and Anna Paquin's Lisa Cohen, have no idea what to expect when arrive at Jeannie Berlin's doorstep in Kenneth Lonnergan's Margaret. What we are surprised to find Berlin is the only character in the film who is not bowled over by Paquin's bratty hyper-verbal intelligence. Rather, she is a force of abrasive crackling energy and more than poor messed-up Lisa Cohen can handle. Berlin conveys every nuance and quicksilver mood change of Lonnergan's literate script without ever looking like she's straining in the least bit for effect. She is the perfect evocation of a particular type, without ever playing her as "a type."
An Oscar nominee in the 70's for The Heartbreak Kid, Berlin has only worked sporadically in the past two decades. Somebody get this woman some major roles, pronto!
5. Mary Page Keller - Beginners
I have no desire to clock her performance with a stopwatch, but I'm guessing her work in Beginners as Ewan trapped mother comes in around the record low screen time of Beatrice Straight's Oscar winning turn in this category. No matter. The award is for supporting work and Keller gives killer support to Beginners despite being confined to a handful of flashbacks. Her tough, acerbic presence jolts the film to life and keeps the whole show from becoming an exercise in precious moping. Sad without being morose, off-kilter without being nutty, it's a finely tuned performance, and it makes Plummer's and McGregor's already fine work seem better by suggesting the way their character's were affected by Keller's forceful presence.
More Worthy Performances
Vanessa Redgrave gives a towering performance of Shakespearean rage as Volumnia in Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus. Both Judy Greer and Shailene Woodley have great moments in The Descendants but both needed a little more to chew on to break into the big list. Rose Byrne gave wonderful dimension to a character that could have been a one-note shrew in Bridesmaids. Carey Mulligan would be a contender for the list with her performance in Drive if she wasn't already hogging the prime real estate. This category could be populated solely by Jessica Chastain performances this year, but her loopy performance in The Help was probably the standout, an original, memorable characterization. And lastly, it was easy to sympathize with Ewan's puppy dog, lovesickness in Beginners since I too fell in love with Mélanie Laurent every time she walked on screen. A very sharp talent under all that screen presence, but, man, what presence it is.
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